They shouldn’t. These are lies. Parents who do this certainly mean well, but they do not do well, because lying is always wrong. Not always gravely wrong, to be sure, but still wrong. That is bad enough. But there is also the bad lesson that children are apt to derive from this practice, even if the parents do not intend to teach it – namely, the immoral principle that lying is acceptable if it leads to good consequences. There is also the damage done to a child’s trust in his parents’ word. “What else might they be lying about? What about all this religion stuff?”
This issue came up in the comments section of my recent post on lying, and I decided that it was important enough to address in a separate post. My more secular readers might not find it worth the attention. But the reason might be that they think that I am obviously right. Ironically, it is (I suspect) more religious and traditionally-minded people who are most likely to tell this sort of lie. Certainly there are many religious people who do it.
I would urge them to stop. A child is completely dependent on his parents’ word for his knowledge of the world, of right and wrong, and of God and religious matters generally. He looks up to them as the closest thing he knows to an infallible authority. What must it do to a child’s spirit when he finds out that something his parents insisted was true – something not only important to him but integrally tied to his religion insofar as it is related to Christmas and his observance of it – was a lie? Especially if the parents repeated the lie over the course of several years, took pains to make it convincing (eating the cookies left out for “Santa” etc.), and (as some parents do) reassured the child of its truth after he first expressed doubts? How important, how comforting, it is for a child to be able to believe: Whatever other people do, Mom and Dad will never lie to me. How heartbreaking for him to find out he was wrong!
To quote Fr. Thomas Higgins’ once widely-used textbook, Man as Man: The Science and Art of Ethics:
Certainly harmful truth might be withheld from children, but not by lying. They may not be told falsehoods which from the force of one’s words they will rightly take to be true. A child can distinguish between fable and fact. When we purport to tell him things “for real” he does not expect a fairy tale. An example in point is the Santa Claus legend. We obtrude the story upon his belief, insisting that we are not weaving tales and commanding his acceptance – it is nothing but lying. One’s intent is innocent enough, but this is a fair example of the end justifying the means. This conclusion will seem strange to American people. It will be said that we are so used to this story; our own mothers told it to us, it is surrounded by an aura of the happiest recollections. Yet it is speech contrary to one’s mind. God has never and cannot so act toward man, deluding him into accepting fiction for fact. It is a wrong way to discipline young minds – eliciting good behavior by falsehood. The motive of the good should only be the true. Because of this experience, it is difficult for the young to avoid the implicit conclusion that a lie in a good cause is legitimate. For some, the awakening is a cruel disillusionment; thereafter they will be wary of the things that are told them by those whose words should be sacred. (pp. 321-22)
The natural law tells us, and the Church has always taught, that lying is intrinsically wrong. There is no clause that says “…but it is OK when you’re lying to your kids about Santa!”